Thursday, July 12, 2012

I Feel Left Out

David Barton has finally responded to the critics of his book The Jefferson Lies.  He defends his book against the following writers:
Here are a few quick and random thoughts I had as I read Barton's piece.  They are in no way meant to be comprehensive, at least for the time being:
  •  Once again, Barton plays the "academic elitism" card and connects it to the "poststructuralist" bogeyman.  I wrote about Barton's misunderstanding of these various "isms" here.  
  • Barton once again attacks academic historians for claiming that history is too "complicated" and intricate for the average person to understand.  Actually, I do know some academic historians who might believe this.  But all of those who have been critical of The Jefferson Lies have been historians who write for the public and have been committed to making history accessible. Jenkinson has spent much of his life studying Jefferson and making his work accessible.  He writes columns, conducts tours and does first- person historical interpretations.  Alan Pell Crawford is a journalist. Throckmorton and Coulter are not historians by training. 
  • And by the way, history is complicated and complex. Why?  Because it is the study of the human experience through time and human beings are complex individuals.  But I don't think, as Barton says, that such complexity means that the past is not accessible to the ordinary citizen.  I just spent over a year on the road trying to convince people that history is complex and complicated and many of the people I encountered seemed to come away with an appreciation of this fact.
  • Once again, Barton rests his authority as a historian on the fact that he owns 100,000 primary documents.  This makes Barton a good collector, but does not make him a good historian.  I don't know how Barton managed to pass History 101 in college with this attitude toward historical interpretation.  He cites books by himself, David McCullough, Glenn Beck, and Newt Gingrich as examples of works defined by "simple uncomplicated history that used to be taught in school."  He fails to recognize that the very act of piecing these "original documents" into a narrative is an act of interpretation.  And good historians are judged not on the fact that they can quote from an original source, but on how they interpret such quotes in the course of their narratives.  
  • At one point, Barton claims that "elitist professors" are jealous of his work and this is the primary reason they are attacking him.  Actually, history professors are "jealous" of Barton's hold over some of the American people and the way that he is teaching them history.   Here I am using the following definition of "jealous": "Feeling or showing suspicion of someone's unfaithfulness in a relationship."  This is the kind of jealousy that the patriots exercised regarding the protections of liberty during the American Revolution. (At one point, Barton seems to compare the attacks on his work to the attacks on St. Paul in Acts 13 and 14).
  •  I will let Throckmorton and Coulter speak for themselves, but I think the reason that they published Getting Jefferson Right as an e-book was so that they could get it out at the same time as The Jefferson Lies.  I find it interesting that Barton criticizes e-books, a form of publishing that makes content affordable and accessible to ordinary readers.  Here he sounds like one of those elitist professors he talks so much about. (They also criticize e-books).  Barton also implies that because his book appears in traditional print form it is somehow more accurate.  I would believe this if I could get confirmation that Thomas Nelson Publishers sent the book out to reviewers before they published it, but I doubt that this was the case, unless the reviewers were Barton cronies such as Glenn Beck.
  • Barton writes (concerning Throckmorton and Coulter): "their real problem with The Jefferson Lies is much more about its worldview than its historical context."  But if Barton reads Throckmorton and Coulter carefully enough, he cannot ignore the fact that most of their beef is indeed with content and historical inaccuracies.
  • Does the three paragraphs Barton devotes to "old newspapers" really have anything to do with the essential criticism of his work? 
I will stop there.  If you want to read my other criticisms of Barton I encourage you to go to the search engine on the right and type the name "David Barton" into it.  If you want my view of religion and the founding era, check out my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

But I do wonder.  Does Barton regret anything about this book? Is there anything that he would have done differently? Are all of those historians who have criticized it, including political conservatives and fellow evangelicals, completely wrong?  Apparently so.  How arrogant.

I urge some of Barton's friends to sit down and talk with him about this.  Barton has become such a product of the political culture wars that I am afraid he is hurting the larger witness of the church in the world.  Where is the humility?  Where is the willingness to listen to his critics?  I guess I had hoped that Barton's response to his critics would have been something different--something more humble, more conciliatory, and more Christian.  But I was apparently wrong.

5 comments:

mag922 said...

I read your book, and it was ok. I'd recommed Steven Wadman's book, "Founding Faith". It is somewhat more objective than your effort. At least that's my impression.

John Fea said...

Well, I at least appreciate the fact that you read it. Waldman's book is well done.

Hrafnkell Haraldsson said...

I suspect he won't pick on you because you ARE a historian, Professor Fea.

I suspect also that you are right about Barton's publisher. I review books for Amazon.com and we generally get books before they're published. Not so with Barton. His was published on April 10, yet I was only able to review it on April 26.

mag922 said...

Well, allow me to elaborate: I was on the tablet before, and it's hard to type. First, I actually purchased your book, not just read it, so your well provided for retirement...I'm in some small way responsible for that (no need to thank me, honestly). Anyway, I got the impression that you really really wanted America to have been founded as an explicity Christian nation, but just couldn't quite get there. I felt that so strongly that I looked up your bio page, and I can only assume that you conveyed that impression (to me, anyway) so strongly becausr you are an evengelical Christian, and it is important to American Christians to have that myth (For the record, I'm an evangelical too, but I'm from New Zealand, living in the US now, and our brand of Christianity is somewhat different in some aspects than my First Baptist congregation here). As such, I did not find your writing to be as objective as I would have liked. However, this is me speaking, and I'm hardly a book critic. I was perhaps somwhat spoiled too. Wadman's book remains the best concise writing on the topic I've seen yet, and I read that first. Please accept my sincere apologies if I was rude - I blame my fat fingers and the tablet "keyboard".

John Fea said...

Thanks for the clarification. As I said before, Waldman's book is very good.

I was actually pleased to hear that you thought I was a bit too biased toward the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation. You are the first person who has said I was biased in this way. I have heard from at least a dozen people (and some folks in formal reviews) who thought that I was biased AGAINST the idea that America was a Christian nation.

I see this as further evidence that I have struck a nerve with the advocates of both views, which is what I had hoped to do.

And I would also be careful in attempts at pigeonholing evangelicals. We don't all believe the same thing about politics and the way to interpret American history. :-)

I appreciate you contributing to my retirement fund, but if you knew what I made per sale you would chuckle at such an idea.

Thanks again for the post.